Book Review

Leah Nieboer’s stunning debut collection of poems, Soft Apocalypse, captures the visceral experience of a body—cosmically alone, contending with illness, often on the move—as her dislocated speaker passes through a series of fractured sites and shadowed scenes. Spare, crystalline lyrics with minimal capitalization and punctuation are scaffolded by prose poems at irregular intervals, each one beginning with a line or phrase from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. as translated by Alison Entrekin. One of these prose poems borrows a question from a 1977 television interview with Lispector: At what point does a person become sad and solitary? Austere, fashionable, in between cigarettes, Lispector gazes off for a moment before looking downcast and does not answer. Perhaps unanswerable, certainly absurd, this question haunts every silence, air gap, and alleyway as Nieboer channels a similar intensity into her negative spaces, pressurizing each word, each line. The resulting cinema stirs up a noirish and vibe-heavy atmosphere in which images flash like clips of memory, infringing on the speaker’s vision of a future tense.

Whether the speakers in these poems are a single figure is hard to say. We aren’t carried across the book by a specific notion of self attached to the “I,” and the voice transfers from poem to poem in sensibility and style, color and mood, more so than a locatable character. Or, perhaps the “I” does resemble an individual self but shifts and morphs between the waking world and the dream realm, like characters in Lynch’s LA trilogy. In the opening poem, speaking through Simone Weil, she says, “I am also other than what I imagine myself to be.” With this distance between the ideal and the actual comes disappointment; after a “juked proposal,” the “I” distinguishes herself from “all those happy girls pressed up against the walls in violeted light,” the neologism here of course evoking its slant rhyme, violated. The proposal shows up again in the poem “Foreclose Me,” where the possibility of a domestic life, a home shared with a beloved, fractures and reforms as “a spliced montage of / stolen    split-level dreams // of houses.” The color cast on the happy girls turns bruised and less innocent, as “violet / fucks pink into purple,” an even stronger suggestion of violation. In this foreclosure the body-house metaphor isn’t a one-to-one relationship, but nonetheless, amidst disrepair, some cosmic debt can’t be paid, and the promise of love, suburban quietude, and home (along with all their consumerist implications) is retracted. Maybe, the feeling is mutual:

I’m not interested

in spending a day

shopping on some avenue

walking an old logic    marvelous rock

on a leash

down the street—

I’m afraid of

Lorine Niedecker comes to mind, the minimalism and attitude of her brilliant short poem “Foreclosure,” as she and Nieboer both push back against their evictions. Also interesting is that Nieboer ends the page here, the object of the preposition fulfilled by negative space until the following page. The speaker fears this scenario of obligation and status quo, but maybe fears the nothingness, the void that follows, even more.

Nieboer’s speaker goes searching, although not to reclaim some inherited and dishonest future. She embarks on a series of  “micrometrical escapes // toward the zerostream’s / barely audible pulmonics,” a quest deep into the kind of spiritual outskirts where any glimpse of morning sun is outshined by the neon lights of the previous night. She brushes up against various background characters and would-be lovers who facilitate sexual tensions in dream sequences like “a triple-X rock opera.” Each encounter is “the stitch in a film frame blitzing out an illness, a lyric complication, shit fiction,” and we are mesmerized by film’s illusion: images passing at their own rate, slow motion or in real time, against twenty-four frames per second.

She is drawn to the fringes, waysides, and shadows. She has a drink in the American Legion bar, bangs on the side of a “yellow, dirt-encrusted trailer,” and walks a “sequined back alley” where she thinks of “a silk dress opening.” Everywhere feels outside the quotidian ideal, and riskier, even the public pool of “Minor Events 1,” where nearly naked bodies find themselves pulled by primal impulses and their subsequent dangers, as “one girl rotates under / another girl /saying yes.” This queer baptism of sorts turns stranger and darker when “the angel / wants to drag her under.” Like the swimmers, sex and death glide together in the water. In “Minor Events 2,” she finds herself in the water again, at the pool’s literal and figurative edge, for an engagement whose erotic suggestions feel equally transgressive, just as threatening:

a man invited me

I wore hardly anything

a little blue

he took a picture

he deleted it later

never got in the water

sat above me on the ledge just

dipped his fingers in

The man only goes so far, then he retracts, perhaps another juked proposal. Even though the propriety of the encounter is questionable, isn’t there still a trace of regret and a desire to be wanted?

In this book, human connections are incomplete and transient. As she flirts with the desire of others, their thresholds, she keeps her own attachments in check and recognizes the fact: “I was only reaching then / for the stranger / for a rub of her future.” Is this rub a glancing touch? Or is it the kind of rubbing one does of a gravestone? Either way, she comes away with a notion of future that is fleeting on one hand, facsimile on the other. How does one who cannot imagine her own future—out of illness or despair or both—allow themselves a deeper and more prolonged intimacy? Nieboer’s speaker equates her isolation with her emotional state: “grief is mostly private / and I’m not an actor.” To grieve one’s own body, amidst heartbreak and a falling world, defies the mask required for a public life. Rather than directly answer the question Lispector leaves lingering, Soft Apocalypse draws a glowing and mysterious world where “sad” and “solitary” are not cause and effect, but words too small, too one-dimensional for the consciousness written here.

About the Reviewer

Jason Labbe is the author of two books of poems, Maps for Jackie (2020) and Spleen Elegy (2017). He edits and publishes the journal HERE.